MESHKO, Oksana Yakivna


(b. 30.01.1905, the village of Stari Sandzhary, Poltava region – d. 02.01.1991, Kyiv

A human rights activist, author and distributor of samizdat, founder-member, later the leader of the Ukrainian Helsinki group (UGH), twice a political prisoner.

Oksana Meshko was born into a large peasant family which traced its roots back to the Cossacks. Her family had never been serfs and had therefore retained the Cossack spirit.

In 1920 her forty-year old father, who had done nothing against the Soviet regime, was grabbed and, together with other hostages, shot for not fulfilling the quota for ‘prodnalog’ (the food tax being the amount of food, etc all peasants had to ‘sell’ or effectively hand over to the State). The family’s home was confiscated, Oksana’s 17-year-old brother Yevhen, an activist of ‘Prosvita’ [‘Enlightenment’] was killed, and her sister Vira and brother Ivan fled.

In 1927 Meshko entered the Chemistry Faculty of the Institute for People’s Education in Dnipropetrovsk and was able to graduate despite several occasions where she was expelled on the grounds of her ‘social origins’.  She managed to be reinstated because she was not a member of the “exploiting class”. She prepared for her exams virtually as an external student, without either a group or a student grant, however she remained firm in not entering the Komsomol.

In 1930 she married Fedor Serhienko, a former member of the ‘Borotbists’ (‘fighters’) faction of the Ukrainian Communist Party, virtually all the members of whom, including Fedor, had already been imprisoned in 1925 on ‘Kholodna hora’ (the Kharkiv prison). The leaders of the faction were executed then and there, while the ordinary members were released only to be killed later. Meshko’s husband’s second arrest came in 1935. For a year Meshko struggled to have him released, after which he was forced to leave for the Urals. Meshko with her two children – Yevhen, born in 1930 and Oles – 1932, and mother struggled to survive.

In 1936 Meshko’s uncle and former political prisoner, Oleksandr Yanko was arrested for “lack of vigilance”, as was another uncle in 1937. Meshko herself was dismissed from her position as junior research assistance of a chemical laboratory of the research institute of grain officially due to ‘staff reductions’.

Meshko took her sons and set off for Tambov where her husband was already living. Her elder son was killed during German bombing. In May 1944 they returned to Dnipropetrovsk to her mother. In 1946 Meshko’s sister, Vira Khudenko, joined them from the Rivne region. Vira’s son Vasyl who had been in the Soviet army had been taken prisoner by the Germans from where he had fled and joined the Ukrainian Resistance Army (UPA) in fighting for whom he had been killed.  Zealous neighbours had denounced Vira to the NKVD. Meshko tried to get her released and was herself arrested in Kyiv on 19 February 1947 and accused of planning, together with her sister, of trying to kill Khrushchev.  They were interrogated for 21 nights in a row and if either dozed during the day, they were punished. Nonetheless, Meshko never signed the protocol they demanded ‘accepting guilt’. 7 months later the sisters were tried in their absence by a special commission and sentenced to 10 years labour camp.

She worked on a State farm in Ukhta, in a stone quarry near Irkutsk and on a building site. She later described the horrors of Stalin’s camps in the book “Mizh smertyu i zhyttyam” [“Between death and life”].  

She was released on the grounds of illness in 1954 by a commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and sent into exile. It was only in 1956 that she was able to receive her passport and return to Ukraine, to her son Oles who was living in Kyiv in a flat with 4,5 metres.  On 11 July 1956 a lieutenant of Justice, Zakharchenko, in handing Meshko her documents certifying rehabilitation told her, with a note of sincerity: ‘The Motherland apologises. I wish you happiness and all the best”.  This rehabilitated status meant that Meshko received a 12 metre room, and she and her son began building a home in Kurenivka near Kyiv.

The Khrushchev thaw released the creative energy of the surviving members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, and gave birth to a new generation – that of the Shestydesyatnyky [Sixties activists].  The veil of secrecy over the horror and shameful crimes of the past began gradually to be lifted.  A private ethnographic museum was opened by Ivan Honchar[1], while the amateur choir ‘Homin’ led by Leopold Yashchenko[2] practised on the banks of the river Dnipro.  People gathered around the monument to Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, at literary evenings, dozens of which were organized by Meshko.  They were not deterred by the first wave of arrests in 1965. Meshko’s son Oles Serhiyenko was arrested in 1966 for 15 days for his speech before the Monument to Taras Shevchenko on 22 May (the anniversary of the poet’s reburial in Kaniv in 1861, having died in exile in Russia) and was expelled from the medical institute where he was studying. He worked as a teacher, only to be dismissed from there for a speech he made on 7 December 1970 at the funeral of A. HORSKA.  

At the end of 1969 Meshko was one of 16 former political prisoners who signed a letter addressed to the Head of the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada and to the Prosecutor General of the UkrSSR.  The letter entitled ‘Yet again “cell trials”?’ protesting at the practice of trying and convicting political prisoners when already in a camp or prison.
In connection with the arrest of Valentyn MOROZ in 1970, a search was carried out of Meshko’s home, with all that was deemed suspicious being removed. Meshko wrote letters of protest to both the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) and KGB.

In 1972 the KGB used a set-up which was primitive, but far-reaching in its consequences. In connection with the arrest of Belgian citizen, Yaroslav Dobosh – the ‘Dobosh case’, from 12 January 1972, a wave of searches, arrests, trials and repressions began.  One of those arrested with O. Serhiyenko.
On 22 May 1972 Meshko was also detained when she tried to lay flowers on the Monument to Taras Shevchenko.  Then came search after search, traipsing between different departments, relentlessly seeking help for her son who was suffering from tuberculosis. Her appeals, impassioned and sophisticated, logical and convincing, based on a sense that right was with her, and truth are models of human rights publicist writing. This was already the voice not simply of a mother defending her son, but open struggle for human rights against an evil regime. Knowing from her own experience how people suffer in captivity, Meshko tried to help them and their families.

It seemed that nothing had survived the pogrom of the second wave of arrests of 1972 – 1973 in spiritually crushed Kyiv, yet when M. RUDENKO spoke with Meshko about the possibility of creating the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG), she supported it unconditionally, asking only who the other members of the Group would be. “Well, there’s me. You’re the second”, RUDENKO replied. – “But who’s going to take things to my son, who’ll send him parcels?” – “For goodness sake, Oksana Yakivna!  You’re so unnerved that you thought we might be arrested! Our Ukrainian civic group is going to be based on the Helsinki Accords”.  – “Nonetheless, we’ll be arrested. But .. that’s even better if they arrest me, since it’s hard now. I can’t live like this”. (Meshko, “Svidchu” [“I testify”], p. 14). 

The Ukrainian Helsinki group was founded on 9 November 1976.  M. signed almost all UHG documents, and also wrote letters in defence of arrested UHG members (23 May 1977) and protesting at persecution and attacks on her (4 November 1978, 31 August 1979), etc.

Over the first two years of the UHG’s activity, Meshko’s home was searched 9 times. The garden near her home was dug up on several occasions in the hope of finding “seditious material”.  In an attempt to induce a heart attack in the 75-year-old woman, an armed attack was organized, while in the building opposite a surveillance post was established with equipment for night watches. People were stopped entering the building, beaten up, robbed on the way to Meshko.

After the arrests of other founding members of the UHG, Meshko was effectively its leader, and soon virtually the only active member since the others were either under arrest, or under surveillance. Sometimes she was forced to leave the house through a window when she needed to take material somewhere. There were even occasions when the bus in which Meshko was travelling was stopped and sent back. Almost single-handedly she waged a drawn-out battle with hordes of KGB officers, informers, investigative operations men, then with psychiatrists, investigators, judges, convoy guards, wardens … One KGB officer said: “If there had been five such old ladies in Ukraine, the whole KGB would have had a heart attack” (“Svidchu”, p. 3).  In dissident circles she was respectfully called “Baba [Grandmother] Oksana”.  Or Cossack Mother. She was insistent on finding others to take the place of arrested members of the Group.

In 1980 Meshko was held for 75 days in the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital, however the doctors were not prepared to perjure their souls, and on 13 October the KGB decided they had to arrest the almost 76-year-old. The Kyiv City Court with particular cynicism issued their verdict on Christmas Day (7 January) 1981: Meshko was sentenced under Article 62 § 1 (“anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”) to 6 months imprisonment and 5 years exile.

The journey to her place of exile in the settlement Ayan, in the Khabarovsk region (on the Okhotske sea), through the whole Soviet empire, took 108 days. The convoy had tried to refuse to take her: “What do we need with corpses?”

Her son, O. Serhiyenko, was serving the last three months of his exile in Ayan. He stocked up wood for the winter, but his mother insisted that he return home and save his family (his wife in Kyiv, after the birth of her child, was long unable to move). Meshko was snowed in completely for three days. She prayed, did physical exercises to combat her illnesses. And she got through. On 5 November 1985 she left Ayan. In Khabarovsk she was met by P. ROZUMNY who accompanied her back to Kyiv.

She greeted “perestroika” and felt hopeful of change. In February 1988 she travelled to Australia for an eye operation at the invitation of the Ukrainian Diaspora.  “Go, Oksana Yakivna – said the KGB officers encouragingly “and stay there”.  – “Oh no, I’ll return alright. Back on your heads”.  It was a triumphant visit. She gave an address in the Australian parliament, giving information about the situation in Ukraine, and took part in the work of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians in the USA. This provided a new and powerful thrust for the Ukrainian national issue in the world press.

On Meshko’s return to Ukraine in January 1989, she was immediately plunged into the whirl of activity that was to lead to independence.  She became a member of the Coordination Council of the Ukrainian Helsinki Union, opened the Founding Congress of the UHU, where on the basis of the Union, the Ukrainian Republican Party was created.  It was her initiative to continue the Ukrainian Helsinki Movement in the form of the Ukrainian Committee “Helsinki-90” (created on 16.06.1990) and she was its motivating force. Meshko took part in the student hunger strike of 1990. Her boundless energy impressed all who knew her and inspired others to action.

At the end of December 1990 Oksana Yakivna suffered a heart attack. On 2 January 1991 her heart which had seemed indestructible, stopped beating.

She is buried at Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv, next to her mother. On their graves stand Cossack Crosses.

Her autobiographical story, written in the middle of the 1970s, was published in 1981 in English as „Between death and life“ by Oksana Meshko and in Ukrainian as “Mizh smertyu i zhyttyam” in Ukraine in 1991. In 1995 a collection of reminiscences was put out entitled “Oksana Meshko, Cossack Mother”, and then in 1996 Meshko’s own extraordinarily moving account as recorded in the last year of her life by Professor Vasyl Skrypka came out under the title “Svidchu” [“I testify”].

Oksana Meshko  Between death and life. Translated from the Ukrainian by George Moshinsky. New York —Toronto—London—Sydney: 1981.— 171 pages.
Oksana Meshko. Mizh smertyu i zhyttyam.— Kyiv.: NVP „Yava“, 1991.— 92 pages.
Mizh smertyu i zhyttyam. „Ya zavzhdy pochuvala sebe ukrainkoyu.“ [“I always felt Ukrainian”]  // Za kyivskym chasom, 1992, №6.
Oksana Meshko Svidchu. Recorded by Vasyl Skrypka. Library of the journal “Respublica”. Serial: Political portraits. V. 3 – Ukrainian Republican Party, 1996.— 56 pages.

”Ne vidstuplyusya!  Do storichya Oksany Yakivny Meshko” [“I will not give up!  100 years since the birth of Oksana Yakivna Meshko].  Recollections, letters, interviews, documents.  Compiled by Oles Serhiyenko and V. Ovsiyenko. – Kharkiv: Folio, 2005, 344 pages

Oksana Meshko, Kozatska matir [Cossack Mother]. Marking 90 years since her birth. Recollections.  Compiled by V. Ovsiyenko. — Kyiv: URP, 1995.— 64 pages
Vasyl Ovsiyenko. “Svitlo lyudei [“The Light they gave”].Memories and portraits of Vasyl Stus Yury Lytvyn and Oksana Meshko.  Biblioteka zhurnalu URP “Republic”. Seriya: political portraits, №4. Kyiv, 1996. 108 pages
Г.Касьянов. Незгодні: українська інтелігенція в русі опору 1960-1980-х років.  / G. Kasyanov.  Dissenting voices: the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the resistance movement of the 1960s to 1980s — Kyiv:  Lybid, 1995.—  pp. 86, 147, 161, 167, 168, 170, 171.
А.Русначенко. Національно-визвольний рух в Україні. / A. Rusnachenko. The National Liberation Movement in Ukraine.  – Kyiv: The O. Teliha Publishing house, 1998, pp. — pp. 19, 210-213, 219.
The Ukrainian Helsinki Group, 1980, p. 37-38.
The Ukrainian Helsinki Group. 1978-1982. Documents and Material.— Toronto - Baltimore: Smoloskyp, 1983, pp. 471 — 492.
’Khronika tekushchykh sobytiy’ [’Chronicle of Current Events’] (CCE). - New York: Khronika

1975, No. 38.— pp. 92-93.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1976, No. 40.— pp. 122-123, 137; No. 41.— 33.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1977, No. 44.— pp. 5, 18, 19.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1978, No. 47.— pp. 20, 125, 139; No. 48.— pp. 21, 24, 25.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1979, No. 51.— pp. 43, 105, 167.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1980, No. 53.— pp. 69-73, 100; No. 54.— pp. 35, 37, 42, 75, 76, 142; No. 55.— pp. 33, 35.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1981, No. 57.— pp. 33, 34, 58, 59, 61.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1982, No. 62.— p. 154.
“Chronicle of Current Events” [CCE]. - New York: Khronika, 1983, No. 63.— pp. 82, 110, 203.

V. Ovsiyenko, June 1998

[1]  Ivan Honchar (1911 – 1993)  early set himself the task of ensuring that Ukraine’s cultural and ethnic heritage was not obliterated by the move to create a ‘Soviet identity’.  His home during the fifties and sixties became effectively the museum the authorities did not want. While looked upon askance by the KGB, since Honchar’s death, the Museum has become State-run. (translator’s note)

[2]  The ‘Homin’ choir which aimed to revive Ukrainian folk music was active in the 1960s under the leadership of Leopold Yashchenko.  Attacks against the choir and Yashchenko himself (accusing them of ‘bourgeois nationalism’) began in 1969 and the choir was forced to disband in 1971. (translator’s note)

 Share this